In stark contrast to the better-known badlands of the Namib desert, the river-rich Caprivi is a Namibian oasis. The Zambezi, Kwando, Linyanti and Chobe rivers sustain 183 000 subsistence farmers and fishermen, myriad mammals as well as some 540 species of birds.
However, the Caprivi strip has long been a troubled piece of paradise. Its strategic location at Namibia's confluence with Angola, Zambia and Botswana has ensured military interest and neighbours' conflicts, too, have spilled over into this region of rivers.
Today, Savimbi is dead, the rebels are being reincorporated into a united Angolan army and the landmines have been cleared. Areas that were once held by the South African Defence Force have been turned into game reserves.
A cross-border tourism agreement has been signed, roads are being upgraded and a new bridge is being built over the Zambezi between Katima Mulilo and Sesheke on the Zambian side of the river.
From Botswana, we crossed into the Caprivi at the Mohembo border post on a late August morning. Early in the day, there was little traffic and obviously insufficient diversion for the border officials. The inspection of the contents of our vehicle attracted quite a crowd.
The interior of our 20 year-old Datsun King Cab was stocked to the roof with provisions and camping equipment for a three-month trip into Southern Africa. The Namibian officials made us pull out and open up everything.
Time being on our side, we obliged amicably enough until finally we were allowed to depart, all parties having been entertained for a good half-hour. The moral of the story? Always go through border posts in the midday heat when officials are less inclined to diligence.From the border, 33km of good dirt road leads through the Mahangu Game Reserve to Popa Falls and Divundu, the junction with the Caprivi highway. Mahangu Game Park was proclaimed in 1989 and covers 244 square kilometres of delta-like marsh with palm trees and ancient baobabs. It provides a safe haven for rarer game such as buffalo, sable, roan, bushbuck, reedbuck, tsessebe and sitatunga as well as over 400 bird species.
20 kilometres from the Mohembo border post we found, in our humble estimation, one of the top ten campsites in Southern Africa. From the main dirt road, signs for Ngepi Camp led us down a 4km stretch of challenging dirt road, making us grateful for high clearance. Green lawns spilled down to the banks of the broad Okavango River and riverine forest provided welcome shade under which to set up our riverside camp.
On the other side of the river was wild bush, the Buffalo core conservation area. This, too, was once military land and Rastas, the Namibian bartender, told us how, as a child, he remembers watching the SADF soldiers drilling on their parade ground across the river.
Broad sweeps of sandbank flanked the water, inviting crocs to bask in the sun. The campsite carried warning signs common in these parts to beware of crocs and hippos. For good reason as I was to discover.
Being the end of the dry season, a young male hippo had taken to munching on the irrigated lushness of the campsite's lawns. One moonlit night I was alone in the tent, the door open to the elements as the zip had recently given up the ghost. I'd just turned out my torch when I heard the unmistakeable sound of a hippo grazing, close by
By the light of the moon and the nearby ablution block, I watched, unblinking, as the young male hippo moved onto my campsite. The great vegetarian behemoth spent the next half an hour paying special attention to the grass around my tent where I lay unbreathing, his shadow falling hugely over the yawning entrance to my fragile canopy.
Having lived to tell the tale, we headed east. The road from Popa Falls to Katima Mulilo is a straight, two-lane tar highway with shoulders and median marker and little traffic other than some transport trucks. It passes through the West Caprivi Game Park. A 32km wide strip between Angola and Botswana, the game park stretches for 180km from the Okavango River in the west to the Kwando River in the east.
At Kongola, a little past halfway, the road deteriorated into fairly bumpy tar although it may well be fixed by the time you get there. 8km from Kongola we discovered the best community campsite of our trip, Nambwa 4x4 bush camp. This area, Babatwa, used to be controlled by the South African Defence Force and has now been incorporated into the Caprivi Game Reserve. You'll need to get entry permits from the Suswe Office 3km off the main road at Kongola.
With permit, map and detailed instructions in hand we headed for Nambwa. At the turn-off from the main road, our first instruction read: 'Engage 4 wheel Drive Now.' They weren't joking. The 11km to camp alternated between undulating drifts of soft sand and sections of hard, dry track through acacia woodlands thinned out by elephant.
Game drives in these parts are perpetually interrupted by the necessity of having to jump out and remove tree branches discarded by elephant. The sand is riddled with their dung. We camped under the generous shade of a big sausage tree on the reed-edged banks of a quiet backwater of the Kwando River.
The Kwando at the end of the dry season was a meandering marshy river. Channels seeped into pools that swelled into lakes inhabited by bream, barbel, tiger fish, hippos and crocs. Water lilies reminiscent of the Okavango padded the edges.
Behind the 5 spacious campsites, a viewing platform overlooked a seasonal vlei set under the shade of enormous trees. These were awash with birds on the afternoon we took shelter from the midday heat. Redbilled woodhoopoes foraged in the holes in the trees. A black-collared barbet with red chest and black hood joined a black-eyed bulbul in the branches above us.
At one point on its meander, the Kwando river traces a broad horseshoe bend, providing a sweeping vantage point for stationary game-viewing. We came across an abandoned tree hide next to the horseshoe. A number of the iron rungs leading up to the simple gumpole platform had been removed to deter foolhardy tourists. My partner however was not so easily dissuaded and managed to ascend the heights just as three elephants came out of the bush for sundowners.
He had a bird's eye view of proceedings while I retreated to an isolated thicket hoping to remain undetected as the three young bulls moved even closer. Thus, from our different vantage points, we watched as the elephants squirted sand and inhaled water, thrusting their trunks up in their air and sucking up smells as vacuum cleaners suck up dirt. The full moon rose round and yellow over the Kwando River.
50km south of Katima Mulilo and 14km from the Botswanan border, at Ngoma Bridge, the Salambala conservancy is another community campsite. Its attractions are rustic privacy and a rudimentary hide at the edge of a large pan. At the end of winter, the pan was mostly dry but the dried dung underfoot and wallowing holes bore testimony to the elephants that passed though in last season's rains.
The heated summer air had been given wings. Thousands of doves twittered and skittered among the muddy holes and dry cracked mud of the pan. As we watched, the goshawks and sparrowhawks swooped into the flocks hunting for breakfast. Two eagles sat like field marshalls on the sidelines.
19 villages make up the Salambala conservancy of 92 000 hectares. The villagers earn money from the campsite and a hunting concession. Our host, Benevia, said that the community was slowly realising the benefits.
The year before last, each area got N$ 1000. In 2002, that amount had increased to N$ 2 500. Slowly the benefits of tourism are being experienced by the community. Yet another reason to visit the captivating Caprivi.by Laurianne Claase